Is there any hope of aligning the many efforts working on the SDGs?

A major U.N. reform initiative is underway around localization and partnerships. In this, the Habitat III process offers a key model.
Flags of member states flutter outside the Geneva office of the United Nations. The multilateral body is now trying to figure out how to unite its efforts around implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals. (Giorgio Caracciolo/Shutterstock)

Can an international organization pledged to pursue three mighty ends — to “end poverty and hunger”, “protect the planet” and “ensure prosperity” — transform them into action through the pursuit of 17 goals, 169 targets and 227 indicators?

And does that framework — the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which went into effect two years ago — align with the many other international agreements forged over the years? These include, among others, accords on climate, urbanization, finance, humanitarian efforts and resilience, each of which has its own implementation and measurement protocols.

In December, member states firmly declared that the United Nations will need to be reformed in order that all development work centres around the SDGs, also known as Agenda 2030. Wow! What ambition — and what an opportunity for real change. Can the U. N. align these efforts? Has Agenda 2030 helped move the reform efforts ahead? Will the U. N. recommendations for UN-Habitat, due out this week, serve as a guide for future U. N. organization?

The member states’ solution to achieving Agenda 2030 calls for supporting two categories of activities: “localization” — referring to implementing the goals at the local level — and “partnerships”, which in great part will facilitate that localization process. Agenda 2030 promised: “All countries and all stakeholders, acting in collaborative partnership, will implement this plan.”

Responding to this reform mandate, newly appointed U. N. Secretary-General António Guterres, previewed his ideas in an interim report (the final is due in December). Here, he declared that with the agreement of the member states, he would reposition the United Nations to make Agenda 2030 its guiding framework, offer strong support for “defining SDG implementation at the local level,” and develop stronger skill sets to “support the universal localization of the 2030 Agenda to serve all partners”.

At the same time, he indicated that some 114 nations had already sought the United Nations’ help in localizing implementation efforts.

[See: With Local 2030, the U. N. seeks to turbocharge its engagement with cities]

But in a somewhat alarming note, Guterres observed that the United Nations itself is lagging behind rather dramatically in approaching the goals comprehensively. He noted that 50 percent of the multilateral body’s funding and staffing is concentrated on only three SDGs — hunger (Goal 2), health (Goal 3) and peace (Goal 16) — and that just three entities are responsible for 75 percent of its spending.

So much for integration of this framework at the global level. And what of localization and partnerships at the national and subnational levels?

Local 2030

Over the past month, some hopeful signs have emerged. Over two weeks in mid-July, countries and stakeholders gathered at U. N. Headquarters in New York to take part in the annual reporting mechanism for the SGDs framework, known as the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF). Not only did 43 countries take part in this year’s check-in, up from 22 last year — thus indicating the broadening ownership of Agenda 2030 — they also came from around the globe.

“Fifty percent of the U. N.’s funding and staffing is concentrated on only three SDGs — hunger (Goal 2), health (Goal 3) and peace (Goal 16) — and just three entities are responsible for 75 percent of its spending.”

As with the U. N. more broadly, however, evidence of true integration remained harder to come by, potentially exacerbated by some structural issues of the HLPF. For instance, while the HLPF organizers have clustered discussion of the goals to be reviewed under key themes, meaning that only a handful of the goals are to be the focus of each year’s review, the actual discussions are siloed still further. While each goal this year got a short, set amount of time for review, there was little reference to the whole of the framework other than a single three-hour session at the end of the week. Partnerships, meanwhile, received a dedicated day to focus on implementation needs (finance, data and knowledge-sharing) and a day for a separate stakeholder forum held in parallel to the ministerial session. Why not think of a format that integrates these discussions?

A second concern has arisen with regard to the national reports that countries voluntarily submit, presenting little vertical integration within nations. For instance, the United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) network unveiled a series of startling statistics in a new report: In the past two years, 42 percent of countries reporting to the HLPF did not consult local or regional government about their reports, 63 percent did not involve them in implementing the SDGs, and 80 percent did not explicitly recognize the value of local governments in their sustainable development efforts.

[See: Where is the local voice in the SDGs review process?]

Still, this year’s HLPF did also present a bright note. On the sidelines of the official event, the Executive Office of the Secretary-General piloted a new project called Local 2030, which aims to demonstrate examples of localization beyond national-level efforts and to stimulate partnership projects in local hubs to be crafted by a variety of partners.

Its sponsors organized a vibrant, highly substantive meeting, although only a few attendees represented member states. In contrast to the formal presentation styles customary at the United Nations, the proceedings were highly interactive. The overall message reinforced the importance of horizontal integration (across ministries and agencies) as well as vertical (from top to bottom, among governmental and non-governmental players) in realizing the SDGs.

What will come of this effort? Can the Executive Office of the Secretary-General infuse more such exchanges — and can they be translated into member states’ broader acceptance and understanding of inclusive definitions of localization and partnerships? Time will tell.

New Urban Agenda model

Amid these questions and the broader effort to reorganize the United Nations with an eye to increasing its efficacy around the SDGs, a key new model and test case are emerging: the follow-up to last year’s Habitat III conference, which resulted in the New Urban Agenda — one of the aforementioned compacts in need of greater alignment with the SDGs.

“The advances put forward in the Habitat III processes provide a model for future U. N. reforms aimed at strengthening both localization and partnerships.”

The New Urban Agenda’s text already explicitly supports alignment with Agenda 2030. Further, it calls for “a review of UN-Habitat, a key agency for sustainable development within the UN system [emphasis added], to judge how it can serve more efficiently and effectively as a focal point for sustainable urbanization a critical element of the Agenda 2030”.

[See: UN-Habitat reforms will hold up New Urban Agenda implementation]

The results of that review, which has been taking place behind closed doors over recent months, are due to be finalized this week. A panel of experts appointed by the secretary-general will be offering an assessment and related recommendations on the agency’s mandate, governance, financing, partnerships and stakeholder relations. This report will feed into a two-day High Level Meeting on the New Urban Agenda in September aimed at informing a U. N. General Assembly resolution about shaping UN-Habitat to deliver on Agenda 2030 and the New Urban Agenda efficiently and effectively.

Hopefully, the messages to be conveyed by the participants will recognize the advances put forward in the Habitat III processes, ones that provide a model for future U. N. reforms aimed at strengthening both localization and partnerships. These innovations include:

  • The strong substantive focus on the critical areas of expertise for the topic at hand;
  • The highly participatory nature of the preparations involving a wide range of partners (formal and informal) drawn from across the U. N. system, all levels of government from national to local, and stakeholder groups beyond the limited number specified by the major group system;
  • The smoothly executed conference, integrating member state representatives and partners; and
  • The legacy process, still in play.

These elements established seminal patterns for UN-Habitat to adopt and refine in its reform efforts. Other agencies could follow.

[See: The U. N.’s urban agency is seeing record demand — even as its funding plummets]

The Habitat III preparations and follow-up yielded examples of new partnerships and means to localize U. N. initiatives while demonstrating a narrow focus on getting three key items right but acknowledging links with other concerns, including climate change, resilience and humanitarian efforts. The immediate result was a New Urban Agenda whose broad authorship enhanced its contents and, under the right conditions, strengthened its ownership for implementation.

Within the U. N. system, the Habitat III preparations and follow-up included involving multiple U. N. agencies and programmes providing significant substantive inputs to the New Urban Agenda and its implementation. A U. N. Task Team composed of 44 U. N. agencies and programmes contributed 22 background papers, ultimately synthesized into ten reports by 200 member-state recommended experts organized in special policy units — some of which were headed by the U. N. Environment Programme, UN-Habitat, UNESCO and the World Bank and others by leading NGOS, IGOs as well as regional banks — formed for the purpose. This was a model for future shared responsibility on a cross-cutting subject like sustainable urbanization.

Further, the preparations included a systematic solicitation of ideas from 11 regional and thematic conferences, bringing together the U. N.’s regional commissions as well as its agencies, funds and programmes, subnational governments and civil society and the subsequent sponsorship of three “public hearings”, including member states and stakeholders, in the halls of the U. N. headquarters.

Finally, post-Habitat III, the organizers sponsored four expert-group meetings and a full meeting of the 40 staff from 19 U. N. organizations to plot collaborative and coordinated implementation strategies. This serves as yet another model for partnerships and localization.

[See: Urban science must inform policymaking — here’s how]

The Habitat III process also recognized and supported new forms of non-agency, non-member-state multi-stakeholder network-based partnership platforms as coordinating, consultative and implementing entities to work with national governments and U. N. agencies on localization.

In this, two umbrella groups are particularly representative. The Global Task Force of Regional and Local Governments (founded 2013) deals with climate change, the SDGs and the New Urban Agenda. And the  General Assembly of Partners (founded in 2015), composed of 16 partner constituent groups representing those with urban-focused interests, addresses the New Urban Agenda and the urban-focused SDGs.

These platforms recognize the independent needs of their members. Importantly, they also have specific goals of brokering differences among themselves, of identifying and presenting common interests in an orderly manner, and of working with member states in support of the SDGs and associated agreements. These platforms are energetically pursuing implementation of the New Urban Agenda and alignment with the SDGs. They will showcase many efforts at the World Urban Forum 9 in Kuala Lumpur in February, later filtering the results into the HLPF 2018.

[See: Civil society taking strategic ‘breath’ amid pause on New Urban Agenda]

While still in their infancy, these platforms can serve as models for the secretary-general’s call for the United Nations to “harness the convening power of the United Nations through platforms where stakeholders can meaningfully engage, build trust, exchange know-how and technologies, strengthen relationships and bring synergy and coherence to achieve results.”

Strengthening integration

As the U. N. moves forward, its successful crafting of Agenda 2030 as a universally applied policy, and the member states’ widespread acceptance of its being the guiding framework for the organization’s development work, are notable accomplishments. By its own admission, however, the body needs to work on integration within its own agencies and in the nations.

As a first step, the United Nations might consider how it structures the HLPF to emphasize and support the linkages among the goals and the existence of multi-level implementation (from global to local), and to direct the involvement of partners and stakeholders in these efforts.

Another step to align the development agenda for efficiency and effectiveness lies in watching the upcoming assessment of UN-Habitat and its ability to serve as a focal point for sustainable urbanization for the implementation of the SDGs and the New Urban Agenda. In this, the experiences of the Habitat III conference are particularly notable, especially with regard to internal and external partnerships and their contribution to the localization of the global compacts.

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Eugénie L. Birch

Eugénie L. Birch is co-director Penn Institute for Urban Research and president of the General Assembly of Partners. Here’s her full bio.